Researchers Create Fibers Similar to Spider Silks

Use of X-ray microscopy to characterize novel polymeric materials

Spider silks have taught us that it is possible in nature to create a material that is both strong and tough. Such a material type could have many applications in fields such as biomedicine, satellite technology, textiles, aircrafts, and automobiles, but it has been difficult for scientists to create in the lab. However, researchers in Germany, Switzerland and China have recently published an article in Science showing successful synthesis of similarly strong and tough fibers. They used both electron and X-ray microscopy to characterize the morphology of these new, synthetic “spider silks.”

Dr. Juliana Martins de Souza e Silva

We spoke with Dr. Juliana Martins de Souza e Silva at Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, leader of the X-ray imaging group at the Chair Mikrostrukturbasiertes Materialdesign – mikroMD, one of the authors on the paper who was also directly involved in the microscopy imaging and characterization, about her thoughts on this research and experience using the imaging technologies.

What are your past experiences with electron and X-ray microscopy?  Was this type of microscopy new to you? 

I have been working with electron microscopy since the beginning of my career. I have been working with X-ray imaging since 2013 and with the ZEISS Xradia Ultra 810 since November 2017.

Can you describe the use of X-ray microscopy in this publication? Was there anything you found particularly interesting or different?

With X-ray microscopy, we were able to characterize the morphology of the sample. What is special with this technique and the device that we have is that we can produce a three-dimensional, virtual representation of the samples that we analyze. In the Science paper, we analyzed the high strength, high toughness yarns using X-ray microscopy. Then, using computer software, we could see the inside of the yarns and the individual fibrils that compose every single yarn. We also used the three-dimensional images of the yarns to calculate a mathematical parameter that describes the fibrils organization.

Use of X-ray microscopy to characterize novel fibrils, referred to as yarns. Left: Volumetric reconstruction of a section of a yarn;  Center: a few fibrils from one yarn; Right: a closer look inside of a yarn.

How does this work fit into the overall research goals of your lab? What are your next steps?

X-ray imaging is key in our group. We have used X-ray microscopy to characterize different samples and also to estimate structural parameters using software analysis. From those three-dimensional images, we already characterized polymer yarns, protein fibers, porous materials, catalysts and drugs, to cite a few examples. In the future, we want to use X-ray microscopy to develop new methods for analyzing biological samples.

Professor Ralf Wehrspohn, another author on the publication and leader of the Chair Mikrostrukturbasiertes Materialdesign – mikroMD, Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, in front of the ZEISS Xradia Ultra 810 X-ray microscope

Learn More

Read the full article in Science: “High strength in combination with high toughness in robust and sustainable polymeric materials.

Dr. Juliana Martins de Souza e Silva’s group page

Learn about ZEISS X-ray microscopes.

Many thanks to Dr. Juliana Martins de Souza e Silva for her contributions to this article.

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